By Brittany B. Fremion
Part of my job (and joy) as a professor and historian is to be actively engaged with the community of scholars in my field and to contribute to its growth outside of the immediate university setting. One of the primary means of doing so is by participating in academic conferences. The major organization for environmental historians hosted its annual conference at the end of March in Chicago. I had the good fortune of being part of one of two roundtables dedicated to finding hope in environmental history. The title of my panel, which focused on hope in teaching, was entitled “The Pedagogy of Hope,” whereas the other revolved around scholarship, “Hope in Environmental History” (check out the conference program here: http://aseh.net/conference-workshops/2017-conference-chicago-1/conference-program).
In his 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, the two roundtables will consider how effectively environmental historians have answered this call. My particular roundtable will feature instructors who have worked to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into their environmentally-themed courses (taken from roundtable abstract).
In my upper-level comparative environmental history course (HST 302) at CMU I have worked to identify ways that reinforce the positive components of my field, despite the persistence of narratives of decline that seem to characterize it (i.e. the looming theme of ecological collapse at the hand of humanity). In order to do so, I often stress that knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. Knowledge of history in particular enables us to make better, more informed decisions in the future, to understand how we got to be where we are, and why multiple perspectives matter. This is particularly important when it comes to environmental issues. We must understand how and why ecosystems have changed in order to develop creative responses to address those changes. The environmental historian plays an especially significant role in helping us recognize our power to dramatically alter the world we inhabit.
The vehicle that carries conversations about the power of individuals to incite change in my classroom is, perhaps oddly, Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (1992). Quinn’s philosophical novel is the first book students read for my course and often their favorite. This work of fiction reorients readers’ perspectives so that they recognize their place within nature, not as separate, through (spoiler alert!) a series of telepathic conversations between a gorilla and student—purposely unnamed or assigned a gender, an effective writing strategy that enables the reader to identify as the student. The conversations are largely driven by questions raised by Ishmael, the gorilla, who is the teacher in this story. One of the first questions he asks the student is about his/her culture’s “creation myth,” to which the student responds with certainty that it is no myth. But Ishmael proves him/her wrong by juxtaposing the human story of creation with that of a jellyfish (you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to better understand why). The moral to this story, and others, is that the Earth exists for no one species in particular; that we, as humans, may not be the pinnacle of creation. Ishmael also points out that we are subject to the laws of nature, challenging the human assumption of control over the environment. As a result, he is able to emphasize that humans, as powerful members of ecosystems, must be better stewards. In the end, he teaches the reader “how to save the planet—from ourselves. With this knowledge, we have the power to change our lives and save the world.”
The discussion sparked by this book leads students to recognize the significant roles they play as members of campus, regional, national, and global communities—that the knowledge and skills they have acquired in my class (and others) should extend into their daily lives. They have the power to bring about change, whether it’s doing something seemingly nominal (like buying organic fair trade products, recycling, or using public transportation) or recognizably significant (supporting environmental initiatives, engaging in social activism, and/or writing policymakers). This self-awareness is in itself transformative and empowering. And it certainly gives me hope.